Does “Going Viral” Actually Result in More Conversions?

Viral Conversions

Right now there is almost certainly an enterprise exec in a boardroom somewhere saying, “We need it to go viral.” Kittens and memes and babies kissing puppies… viral.

When most people think about going viral, they think about raising a lot of awareness for their product or company. But what about money in the bank, what does going viral mean for your bottom line?

So, the statement becomes: We need to go viral in a way that makes us actual money. Not surprisingly, that usually looks a little different than kittens and memes and babies kissing puppies.

Do you even want to go viral?

First, what makes something go viral? That’s something that no one fully knows the answer to, but some content creators have created formulas that they believe will increase your chances. For example, Upworthy believes that formula is simple: clicks plus shares…

Jonah Berger, author of Contagious and Invisible Influence, however, argues that the formula is a bit more complicated when you are trying to make a product or service go viral…


Jonah Berger, Author of Contagious:

“So to get people talking, companies and organizations need to mint social currency. Give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting their products and ideas along the way. There are three ways to do that: (1) find inner remarkability; (2) leverage game mechanics; and (3) make people feel like insiders.” (via Goodreads)

But before you read on, consider the original question. Do you even want to go viral? Your boss probably thinks so, but the truth is that a lot of sites that aren’t ready to go viral launch their campaigns too soon.

Consider these two questions…

  1. Why do you actually want to “go viral”?
  2. What will it do for your business?

If your answer to number one was “awareness”, that’s fine. Your goal doesn’t have to be “generate $500,000 in revenue”. In fact, virality is often too unpredictable for goals of that nature.

But what good is awareness if your site isn’t optimized to convert those who are now aware? Your site needs to be ready to go viral.

As a public service announcement, I’d like to address a common myth. “Viral campaigns” do not begin and end with funny videos, as most content producers believe…

Viral Videos

Other types of content (Facebook posts, tweets, articles, infographics, images, microsites, sales page, etc.) can and do go viral as well.

What are some successes?

Here are some non-video viral campaigns that have been successful in the last few years.


On January 12th, 2015, Mat Carpenter pushed the site live and went on vacation, expecting the site to raise only a moderate amount of attention from low-level blogs and Reddit. Within hours, orders were in the triple digits.

Perhaps important to note is that at this point, Mat hadn’t written the letter that was supposed to go inside the envelope, bought the envelopes or even bought the glitter.

That night? Thousands of orders came in. Dozens of press requests poured in. He actually had to remove the purchase form when he rolled over 2,000 purchases in less than 24 hours.

After 2-3 days, he put up a subscription form for people wanting to be notified when orders were being accepted. 6,000 emails came in, even days after the hype.

The result? $20,000 in less than 24 hours. Then, he sold the site for $85,000. (Presumably because he didn’t want to deal with glitter for the rest of his life.)

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

Around the same time, Mark Manson published The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck on his personal blog. The entire article is a protest against the “always positive” mantra that most self-help and personal development resources preach.

The article went so viral that Mark created an entirely new school of thought and landed himself a book deal. That 12 minute read is now 229 pages and being sold in every major bookstore.

It was only released a couple weeks ago, so we’ll have to wait and see how it does, but this is definitely a success story for Mark and his 2 million readers.

Agency or Porn

Agency or Porn

A Toronto PR agency, 88 Creative, launched Agency or Porn in August 2015. They put in the time and effort to seed the site to the right people, helping it go viral. They…

  • Sent postcards to all of the agencies featured on the site.
  • Sent postcards to journalists.
  • Sent postcards to over 50 of their Canadian agency friends.
  • They put up posters and stickers in what is known as “Agency Alley” in Toronto.

The result? The brand new site attracted 78,000 unique visitors in 30 days. And it wasn’t just a local success… those visitors came from over 165 countries. During that time, it was shared over 3,500 times on Facebook.

They also ended up in almost all of the major agency publications, including: Marketing Magazine, AdWeek, Ad Age, and AdLand.

What are some failures?

Of course, not every attempt at a viral campaign is successful and not every company with a viral campaign succeeds.

Backfiring Happens… Often

We’ve written an entire article on psychological backfiring, so I will be brief. Be aware that the message of your viral campaign can easily backfire, resulting in the opposite of your desired affect. When your message is exposed to so many people, you lose control of it.

Jonah explains…


Jonah Berger, Author of Contagious:

“Kids aged twelve and a half to eighteen who saw the ads were actually more likely to smoke marijuana. Why? Because it made drug use more public. Think about observability and social proof. Before seeing the message, some kids might never have thought about taking drugs. Others might have considered it but have been wary about doing the wrong thing.

But anti-drug ads often say two things simultaneously. They say that drugs are bad, but they also say that other people are doing them. And as we’ve discussed throughout this chapter, the more others seem to be doing something, the more likely people are to think that thing is right or normal and what they should be doing as well.” (via Goodreads)

Where Is MH370?

Where's MH370?

After the success of ShipYourEnemiesGlitter, Mat started working on his next project, a Where’s Waldo?-style activity book based on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

Mat managed to piss a few people off and score some press coverage from…

  • Vice
  • NY Daily News
  • National Post
  • Huffington Post
  • Mirror

…and many more. But the book didn’t do as well as he expected in terms of viral reach and actual sales…

Mat Carpenter

Mat Carpenter, ShipYourEnemiesGlitter:

“Nobody gives a shit about the plane anymore. People are over it, wonder what that says about the population in general.”

Are you ready to go viral?

Of course, going viral will get you more conversions. More people are flooding to your site, which means conversions will increase. However, giving your product away for free will increase your conversions, too. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

If you don’t spend the time to ensure your site is optimized and prepared for viral-level traffic, you’re literally throwing money out the window. Mat explains how he made the same mistake…

Mat Carpenter

Mat Carpenter, ShipYourEnemiesGlitter:

“I can only really talk about SYEG and whilst that did put money in the bank, it could have been a lot more if I had my shit together.

I mean, there was not a single call to action above the fold, the user had to scroll to the very bottom of the page for me to make a sale.

The payment process was extremely simple, but we didn’t capture user information to market to at a later date. It was literally too simple. SMH. No upsells, no add-ons, just a shit show.

Everything about it was the complete opposite way of how to optimize a website to increase sales.”

Now, you have three options for viral content…

  1. A dedicated landing page (like Agency or Porn).
  2. Your actual site (like ShipYourEnemiesGlitter).
  3. A blog article (like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck).

…so choose wisely. It’s a matter of having a product that has viral potential or the ability to create content that has viral potential.

1. Quality assurance.

Here’s the checklist you need to run through before sending a ton of traffic to your site…

  • Is your server powerful enough to handle in the influx?
  • Is your ESP powerful enough to handle the influx?
  • Is your commerce platform powerful enough to handle the influx?
  • Does your site load quickly?
  • Does your site work in every browser?
  • Does your site work on every device?

You’d be surprised how many sites go viral and then remain down for hours or hit inbox maximums and lose orders or hit PayPal caps and get their accounts frozen. Be prepared to receive what you asked for.

2. Viral loops.

Here’s a reality that not many people consider. Your audience is already a fan of what you do. The hard part isn’t getting them to share, the hard part is getting their friends to share. And their friends’ friends. And their friends’ friends’ friends.

The trick to doing that is to create a viral loop. Anyone familiar with the startup world will recognize that term. Here’s how Andrew Chen from Uber describes it

The steps a user goes through between entering the site to inviting the next set of new users

Simple enough? Well, because this core loop is repeated so many times over generations and generations of users, getting it right is incredibly important.

The viral loop can be pretty much anything. Here are some examples…

  • Capturing emails for lead nurturing via email.
  • Having people create an account.
  • Having people “pay with a tweet”.
  • Having people unlock access by referring a friend.
  • Having people unlock perks by referring a friend.
  • Integrating the loop into your actual product (e.g. an ESP adds a “Sent via ___” line to each email sent).

3. Optimize your damn site.

Before you try to run a viral campaign, take the time to go through the entire ResearchXL model


Sending traffic to a site you haven’t optimized at all is essentially the equivalent of throwing money out the window. Sending viral traffic to a site you haven’t optimized just means throwing more money out the window at a faster rate.

It takes more time and goes against the typical “let’s just make a funny video and see what happens” mentality, but you will end up generating more revenue from your viral campaign.

How to Position Yourself to Go Viral

No one knows the secret to going viral. If they did, they’d be making so much money that they wouldn’t need to work another day in their life.

Don’t believe it?

In 2012, Upworthy revealed that only 5 of their posts had broken the 1M views mark. Another 0.7% had broken 500K views. 56% hadn’t broken 10K. Obviously, those numbers have undoubtedly changed as the site has grown in popularity, but the fact remains that even the experts don’t have “the secret”.

In fact, Steve Rayson from BuzzSumo explains that going viral is definitely not the norm…


Steve Rayson, BuzzSumo:

“Viral posts are not the norm. Our examples below include posts with millions of shares. However, these viral posts are exceptional even for very largest viral sites, as we can see from the graphs below. These show the distribution of shares across posts for BuzzFeed and the New York Times.” (via BuzzSumo)

BuzzFeed and NYT

However, there are a few things you can do to position yourself for virality.

1. Ask Yourself the Right Questions

First, consider who your audience is. If you don’t choose the right audience, you’ll end up with a bunch of low quality traffic, which is a waste of time.

You need to focus on who they are, what resonates with them, what motivates them, what gives them anxiety, etc. This requires a lot of qualitative research, which you’ll conduct as part of the ResearchXL model.

Everything you do going forward should be about getting as many potential customers to your site.

To ensure you meet that goal, you’ll need to make sure the content you’re trying to promote makes an emotional, social connection with your audience (and those who influence your audience).

Francine Hardaway from Stealthmode Partners explains…


Francine Hardaway, Stealthmode Partners:

“To make you share something, you have to identify with it in some emotional way. Nostalgia is social. Breaking news about things like the Jodi Arias trial or a tsunami are social. Humor is inherently social, as are cute animals.

BuzzFeed did a promotional campaign with Toyota Prius called ’25 Hybrid Animals You will Love.’ It got millions of shares and views.” (via Fast Company)

Here are some other questions to consider…

  • Has it been done before?
  • Will it make people feel something?
  • Is the timing right / Is it relevant?
  • What are the metrics you will use to measure viral reach / success?

Example: The Late Late Show

Remember when James Corden first introduced the Live Tinder segment to The Late Late Show? The segment is culturally relevant (for now), which is why it resonated so well with his audience. Those videos get millions of views on YouTube while most of the show’s videos get 100-500K views.

Example: Ellen and Lady Pens

Upworthy curated the opening monologue Ellen gave on the topic of “lady pens”, which are (unfortunately real) pens from Bic designed specifically for women, for whom writing with pens is much more difficult…

Ellen on Upworthy

The results were impressive…

  • Shares: 65,291
  • Likes: 128,785
  • Comments: 55,156
  • Tweets: 23,518

In 2012, it was one of the most popular pieces of content Upworthy had ever curated. Adam Mordecai from Upworthy explains why they think the video did so well…


Adam Mordecai, Upworthy:

“We posted this right in the run up to the election. The Republican party had been dealing with various candidates talking about “legitimate rap”, their presidential nominee had been speaking of “binders full of women, and clearly the electorate was tired of hearing about all of it.” (via Upworthy)

Again, relevancy and emotion come heavily into play.

2. Make an Action Plan

Jonah said it best in Contagious, “Virality isn’t born, it’s made.”

You can’t create a piece of content, whether it’s a blog post or a landing page, and sit around waiting for it to go viral. If you do, you’re banking on it going viral by pure chance. Which, sometimes, does happen…

Mat Carpenter

Mat Carpenter, ShipYourEnemiesGlitter:

“It was mostly a fluke. I posted on Twitter, Product Hunt & Reddit. I also emailed 2 tech blogs telling them about this revolutionary idea that would change the world; mostly for shits & gigs.”

But it’s rare. Why put in the effort of creating something you believe could go viral and then not put in the effort to help it actually go viral? Seems like a waste of time, money and resources.

So, ask yourself this question…

  1. What am I going to do right now to seed the campaign so that it gets in front of my audience as many times as possible?

For everyone, the answer will be different. For example, here’s BuzzFeed‘s advice to contributors hoping to make their content go viral…


Tanner Greenring, BuzzFeed:

“Be topical and make a unique comment on something big and current in pop culture. The anatomy of a viral post:

  • Engaging a comprehensible title.
  • Timely and topical.
  • Top list.
  • Provocative thumbnail.
  • Unique, humorous take on culturally relevant topic.
  • Description is detailed and descriptive, yet succinct.” (via BuzzFeed)

Now, let’s get more specific. BuzzFeed has over 200M monthly uniques, 50% of which are people ages 18-34. Add teenagers in there and you have a very young audience, a demographic often criticized for being a little egocentric.

That might explain this next “going viral on BuzzFeed” tip from Tanner…


Tanner Greenring, BuzzFeed:

“People online love talking about themselves. Give them an opportunity to do so by creating quizzes that appeal to their vanity. Make them want to share their results on Facebook and Twitter. People like to share quiz results that make them look cool.” (via BuzzFeed)

First, consider how shareable your campaign really is. Anyone can write a catchy headline and attract a bit of attention, but that doesn’t make the campaign actually shareable… just clickable.

Unfortunately, clickable just won’t get you as far as shareable, it doesn’t have the same “staying power”.

Adam explains how they gauge shareability at Upworthy…


Adam Mordecai, Upworthy:

“‘Clickbait’ — overselling content with outrageous headlines in order to get people onto a website — is a totally viable (if totally annoying) way to get a bunch of initial views. But it doesn’t create viral content. By far the most important factor in getting people to share a post is the actual quality of the content in the eyes of the community. To share, they have to love what they see.

And that’s the reason we focus on quality over quantity. We gauge quality on three things:
1. Is the content substantive, engaging, and maybe even entertaining?
2. If 1 million people saw it, would the world be a better place?
3. Does the content actually deliver on the promise of the headline?” (via Upworthy)

Start by perfecting the “headline”. That might be the name of the product, the actual headline of an article, the title of a landing page, etc.

Upworthy comes up with a minimum of 25 headlines for every single piece of content they publish to ensure they get this step right, a practice they borrowed from The Onion…


Adam Mordecai, Upworthy:

“You have to crap out 25 headlines for every piece of content. You will write some really stinky headlines. Once you start getting desperate, you start thinking outside the box. So you have to write 25 headlines. #24 will suck. Then #25 will be a gift from the headline gods and will make you a legend.” (via Upworthy)

Alex wrote an article on testing content titles a while back that you might find helpful.

It’s also important to look back at what has worked for dozens of other viral campaigns. Not a the specific tactics, but at the underlying patterns and elements.

Here’s what Steve found after looking through over 1B articles and analyzing the most shared content…


Steve Rayson, BuzzSumo:

“Our review has identified four different elements which occur frequently with viral content. A combination of these elements may not guarantee viral success but they can improve shareability.” (via BuzzSumo)

Those four elements are: emotional, content, topic, and format. No one can predict going viral, but according to Steve’s research, tapping into these elements can help push you closer to your goal…

Before pushing your campaign live to the masses, you can test it on a smaller audience to see if they’ll share. For example, you could conduct customer interviews. You might even conduct user testing to see if people are willing to share the campaign.

Finally, consider where you will seed the campaign when it’s live. Your qualitative research will come in handy here because you need to go where your audience and the people who influence them live. That could be Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, BuzzFeed, mainstream media, etc.

There is no one channel that is better than others. It’s all about which channel will let you reach the most amount of relevant people as often as possible. That’s different for everyone.

3. Iterate and Try Again

Now it’s time to look back on what you did, how you did it and what the results were. Did you actually go viral? Did you meet your goal from the beginning of the article?

If not, that’s ok. Actually, it’s pretty average. Most campaigns don’t go viral. Viral campaigns are exceptions to the rule.

Spend time with your data to figure out which channels worked best. You have to put in the work and analyze the campaign. What went wrong?

If a lot of people made it to your site when they saw it being shared, but didn’t share it themselves, your campaign might under-deliver on the headline. If a lot of people who visited the page shared, but those shares didn’t result in many new visitors, you might not have a very catchy headline.

Now, if you did meet your goal. You still need to analyze. Extract as many learnings and insights as possible for the next campaign because there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to repeat success by doing what you did before.

Above all…

  • Always be coming up with new ideas.
  • Always be testing headlines, ideas, etc.
  • Always be willing to take risks and try something brand new.


If you want growth, you need awareness and conversion optimization. That means going viral for the right reasons using a systematic, repeatable experimentation process.

Here’s what you need to remember for your next campaign…

  1. Consider why you want to go viral and what it will do for your business.
  2. Viral campaigns do not begin and end with video.
  3. Before launching a viral campaign, you’ll want to: conduct quality assurance, build a viral loop, and optimize your site to actually convert all that traffic.
  4. There is no magic formula for going viral. No one has it completely figured out.
  5. But you can position yourself for virality by: conducting qualitative research to better understand your audience, analyzing the timing / relevancy of the campaign, and making an action plan that outlines where you’ll seed your campaign when it’s live.
  6. Once the campaign has ended, you have to analyze the data. If it worked, extract learnings and insights for the next campaign. If it didn’t, figure out where it went wrong before launching the next campaign.

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Does “Going Viral” Actually Result in More Conversions?